Death in the family
That’s partly because you run through much of the same gamut of emotions with your supervisor as you do with your Mum and Dad. I mean a mixture of abject devotion and admiration, oedipal hostility, irritation, love and awe. Which is why, I guess, the Germans use the phrase Doktorvater or (if only!) Doktormutter.
But it’s also to do with the succession of generations – biological or intellectual. The death of others, after all, brings out self-obsession in every one of us. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t thought, as they weep for their parents in the grave, that it is now “their turn next”. Suddenly it’s you that the grim reaper is going to have in his sights.
Well so it is with academic succession too. The uncomfortable fact is that my students will one day be sitting in a pew looking at my coffin, just as I looked today at the coffin of John Crook – who was professor of Ancient History here in Cambridge between 1979 and 1984, and had been a fellow of St John’s College since 1951.
Today’s funeral was actually one of those relatively happy occasions. Crook had written some wonderful books on Roman History (my favourite is one called Law and Life of Rome, which tried to rescue the study of Roman Law from the pedants who usually study it, and to show us just what an exciting route into Roman Social Life it really was). He was also an extraordinarily clever, generous, quirky, self-deprecating and occasionally curmudgeonly character of the old school, who is brilliantly captured – better than I could ever hope to – by Peter Linehan’s obituary.
But he was nearly 86 years old, frail and – as people like to say – “ready to go”. I’m not quite sure that I believe that anyone is ever “ready to go” in the sense that is so easily claimed. What I expect we mean is that we ourselves don’t feel too bad about it, and that we’ve had our chance to say some kind of good-bye (another aspect of the self-obsession of the bereaved). My goodbye had been to go up to the hospital and show him the proof copy of my new book. I can’t, in retrospect, imagine that anyone would really want to have a book on the Roman Triumph waved under their nose on their death bed. But it made me feel better to have shown him.
Funerals do, however, give you plenty of time for reflection, especially if you are not a lusty hymn singer. I found myself musing in pretty much this order:
1) How woefully underdressed I was. Twenty five years in Cambridge and even I hadn’t quite grasped -- unlike most of the rest of the congregation it seemed -- that you’re supposed to wear a gown to a funeral in a College Chapel. (Shows you how rarely I do it, I suppose – partly because Newnham doesn’t have a chapel, being a resolutely undenominational kind of place ever since its foundation.)
2) How weird the views of St Paul are in I Corinthians 15. vv 20-26, 35-58, which was the lesson on this occasion. It’s all very well to talk about the dead being raised “at the twinkling of an eye”. “Oh death where is they sting?” etc. But what on earth does he mean by “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.” A number of us, I have to say, were puzzled by this and picked on a classicist in holy orders for enlightenment at the funeral tea. She did her best, but I was still left more than a bit baffled.
3) What a wonderful supervisor John Crook was, but of a style we were not likely to meet again. I didn’t get the kind of training our PhD students expect now: no language classes, no instruction in how to network, to present papers, write a conference abstract or construct a cv. Instead I had a raised eyebrow or two about my German grammar, a pencilled “are you sure?” against some of the wilder ideas I submitted to him – and hours of his time to talk about any ideas that came into my (or his) head. It did the trick.